It’s been almost a year since BioShock Infinite came out. Can we all talk about it calmly and rationally now that we’ve had time to digest it? Without worrying about spoilers? We can? Cool. See, this is why I like the internet.
So. In case you’ve been in orbit for the past year or so, one of the biggest releases of 2013 was BioShock Infinite, the sequel to 2007’s BioShock, and the Apology Edition for the release of BioShock 2. While Infinite wasn’t a perfect game by any means, and it’s been hotly debated in forums far and wide, I think that it deserves whatever praise and accolades it’s gotten. It’s got its stumbles, but I can overlook that thanks to its solid gameplay, thoughtful writing, and pretty much everything having to do with the existence of Elizabeth. Reality-distorting girl dancing on a boardwalk? Game of the Eon.
What I find striking about Infinite, though, is its setting. The game just wouldn’t be what it was without a place like Columbia — a distorted, idealized America tucked away in the sky, fusing old-timey sensibilities, a continent-spanning amusement park, and hive of mutant racists into one. I’d assume (or at least hope) that there isn’t a single person among us who’d want to live there for any number of reasons. That said, I can’t help but support the concept. Not the whole “mutant racist” thing, but the idea in-universe and out of it. I’m intrigued by the fact that before our “hero” Booker DeWitt starts bumping around, the mile-high haven is in a state of perfection. A state built on lies and warped worldviews, sure, but the fact still stands. Columbia is, at its outset, a utopia. And in light of that, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of them in games.
Sans mutant racists. And cyborg devil birds.
I know that’s a crazy idea. When you hear “utopia”, you immediately think “perfect world”. Nothing needs to change. Everyone’s happy. There’s no need for conflict. And if there’s no need for conflict — one of the essential parts of a story, game-based or otherwise — then you can’t possibly have anything meaningful done besides faffing about for eighteen hours. It’s antithetical to everything we gamers, those who process and digest spoken and unspoken stories, know and love. A game where the world is perfect might as well be something as limp-wristed as Animal Crossing; we need action! Excitement! Danger around every corner! Guns and swear words!
But there are advantages. For me, this is part of what makes Infinite work as a game; you’re playing as the bad guy, the Antichrist that the “bad guy” has prophesized long beforehand. And he’s exactly right — Booker comes stomping in, leads The Lamb astray, and well before the game’s closing hours you turn a sunny Americana town into a burning, storm-filled warzone. Columbia might not have been the greatest place to be for an outsider looking in, but for those who actually lived there, it was probably pretty neat. You ruined their utopia just to complete your own selfish goals — the objective the game set before you on a silver platter alongside a wine glass filled with the blood of your virtual prey. Instead of diving straight into a world pre-ruined by aliens, monsters, zombies, enemy soldiers, or just the war du jour, you got to see a beautiful and fully-realized world before it was destroyed. And then you go and smash it all up. Excellent work, hero.
It may sound like I’m retroactively taking shots at Rapture for being a complete wreck by the time you venture in, but I’d say it works on a similar axis. Not one-to-one, but similar. Remember, Rapture was supposed to be a perfect world for the men and women who lived within it — where people could take charge of their destinies and their bodies without having to worry about pressure from the outside world. It may have failed — triumphantly — but even a failed utopia creates an interesting setting to trek through. You get to see glimpses of the world that might have existed, and wonder what could have been if things hadn’t gone wrong. You get to see that spirit of change and reform, and you learned more from the remnants scattered around your feet as you move from one ruined hall to the next. That, I’d say, is supremely interesting.
We’ve seen the alternative a thousand times before. The war-torn planet. The city under siege. The hollowed-out remains of once-mighty metropolises. The world as ruined by zombies. The Mad Max clone. Destroyed settings — dystopias, to over-generalize — aren’t inherently bad in themselves, but you have to admit that by now they’re oversaturated in the gaming climate. Speaking personally, I think those things are “the easy way out”; sure, creating a ruined world (or a decaying version of our own) is doable, but I’ve always thought that the best and most memorable settings are those that have some real effort put into them. Those that offer up something you don’t see too often. I just don’t think you can do that quite as well with another war-torn or ruined environment. That’s what made Rapture so memorable. The same goes for Columbia. Making a utopia isn’t easy, but it brings with it some real rewards.
It’s one thing to do the good old cane-shaking at modern gaming trends and claim they should do things your way. The question now is “what’s the solution?” How can utopias be integrated into the gaming canon more easily? As it turns out, we don’t have to look very far for some possibilities.
Back in 2012, GameInformer did an interview with the director and producer of Pokémon Black/White 2 to get some info on the world they’d been working with for more than a decade. The implication is that their world is an ideal version of Earth; people are generally good, like to work together, and put their all into raising and training their pocket monsters. It’s safe to say there are probably a few holes in the concept, and anyone with a passing knowledge of names like “Team Aqua” knows that not everything is honky-dory, but that’s the clincher. There’s room for conflict in a utopia without having to resort to blowing everything up. There’s a personal stake in the matter, in the sense that you’re on a journey in this ever-growing world to become a master; there’s a threat you can contend with, in the sense that the bad guy team of the generation can scheme to wreak havoc and threaten to disturb the peace. There’s an air of simplicity to the franchise, but there’s also earnestness and a refreshing optimism that you can’t help but find charming. Endearing, even. Though we probably shouldn’t wonder why there’s suddenly a new continent showing up every few years. We’ll all sleep better that way.
And that’s just one of the possibilities that exist today. Imagine the potential — what if there was a game where you played as an anti-Booker, and the leading man wanted to build a utopia instead of destroy one? Or what if there was a “god game” like SimCity, where you had to not only build the perfect city, but shape the mindsets of the people in it? Would you resort to creating a Huxleyan world and giving the people immediate satisfaction? Or would you shape their minds over the course of ages with gentle philosophy? How would you respond to threats to the peace within and without? With an iron fist, or an open palm?
I’d like to see the standard-fare zombie game try to tackle that.
So what can we gamers (the oft-abused audience the industry is supposed to cater to) do in the short-term? In a word, “appreciate”. If we accept and recognize that there are other worlds and possibilities, we can take the first step beyond the status quo. And in this day and age, we REALLY need to move past the status quo. If we realize that there’s more, we can demand more; we can come one step closer to getting more places like Columbia or Rapture. We can have worlds overstuffed with imagination — and be better off because of it. And in the end, wouldn’t that be just aces? It sure looks that way to me. And I wouldn’t mind seeing that future one day for myself. For all our sakes.
…I just realized this post has nothing to do with horses.
RHAMY PAYNE (CROSS-UP.BLOGSPOT.COM)